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Travel Tech News, December 2018: The Electric Planes Edition

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Google’s cell service is starting to look a lot more like a real product, and the first all-electric commercial flights might not be far away. The EU is testing a pretty bad AI-powered lie detector at the border, and you can now message businesses around the world directly from Google Maps.

It’s the final Travel Tech News of the year!

Google Fi Is Now Available On Many More Smartphones (Yes, Including iPhones)

Google Fi

Every time I’ve talked about Project Fi, Google’s great cell service for travelers, there’s been a big caveat: it probably didn’t work on the phone you had.

Last week, the company officially took Fi out of “project” mode (it’s now just called Google Fi) and announced a huge change to the service.

Effective immediately, it’s now officially supported on a whole bunch of phones, including models from Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, and many others including Apple.

Well, mostly supported.

One of the most interesting parts of Fi has been its automatic carrier switching in the US, seamlessly moving between T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular depending on coverage. It requires special hardware, though, so that part of the service still isn’t available to most people.

The most useful part for travelers, though — $10/GB data, free texts, and cheap-ish calls almost anywhere in the world — is available on any supported device. Useful features like free data-only SIMs for other devices (you only pay for the data you use), and bill capping, are also included.

Fi is still US-centric, and there doesn’t seem to be any plan to expand it to customers based in other countries. Still, increasing the number of phones it works on, and making it an official Google product, bodes well for the future of the service.

The World’s First All-Electric Commercial Flights Might be Coming to Scotland

Orkney islands

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the carbon footprint of plane journeys, which makes electric-powered flights seem highly appealing.

Unfortunately, though, there’s a major stumbling block: compared to jet fuel, batteries just aren’t energy-dense enough to power large commercial airplanes for any length of time.

Still, that doesn’t mean the idea is a complete non-starter. In the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, for example, the combination of plenty of wind power, small passenger numbers, and short distances between islands lends itself well to electric planes.

The longest flight in the area lasts fifteen minutes, while the sub-two-minute journey from Westray to Papa Westray is the shortest commercial flight in the world. Local airline Loganair is teaming up with a specialised aircraft modification company to turn the eight-seater aircraft it currently uses into all-electric versions.

Modifying existing planes is much cheaper and faster than building new models from scratch. The companies suggest a potential three-year timeframe for building, testing, and certifying the modified planes, meaning we could see fully-electric commercial flights as early as 2021.

It’s small-scale, sure, but big ideas have to start somewhere.

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The EU Is Testing a Bad AI-Powered Customs Agent at the Border

Passport control icon

The European Union is currently testing an AI-powered lie detection system at four border crossings in Hungary, Greece, and Latvia. Unsurprisingly, it’s not very good.

The system asks travelers a series of questions such as “what is in your suitcase?”, and analyzes facial micro-gestures for signs of lying in the response. If the machine is happy with your answers, you’re free to go. If not, you’re referred to a human for further questioning.

Being quizzed by a machine opens up all sorts of concerns at the best of times… and this is not the best of times. In a small test, an earlier version of the system was only 76% accurate in picking whether someone was lying or not. Researchers say they’re “confident” they can increase this to 85%.

Even if the test results are relevant in real life, and even if those researchers can improve the hit rate as much as they hope, that’s still over one hundred million people a year being mischaracterized if the system was rolled out to every traveler at every EU border crossing.

Let’s just say it has a little way to go yet.

Google Maps Now Lets You Chat Directly With Businesses Anywhere in the World

Google Maps messaging

In its endless quest to cram yet more features into what was once a simple navigation tool, Google’s announced the latest update to its Maps app. Unlike many of them, this one might actually be useful for travelers.

It’s now possible to message businesses around the world directly from within the app, as long as they’ve signed up to do so. Simply search for a business name, tap on the card at the bottom of the screen to see more, and tap the “Message” icon.

Seems simple, and it is, but I can see it being pretty helpful for international travelers in particular. Since it works over any data connection, it’s easier and likely cheaper than calling with your question when you or the business is overseas.

If you don’t speak the local language well or at all, using Google Translate and a messaging tool like this is also less stressful and more accurate than a phone call or face-to-face conversation.

Is it going to change the world? No, probably not. Will it useful for travelers now and again? Yep, I reckon it will.

Images via Free-Photos (wind turbine), Google FiJacobite (Orkney islands), geralt (passport control)

 

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

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